There are no positive data in the Bible or in rabbinical literature concerning birthday festivals among the ancient Jews. This silence on the subject is, however, no warrant for the conclusion that the Jews altogether abstained from following a custom which was general among the Egyptians (Gen. xl. 20), Persians (Herodotus i. 133), Syrians, and Greeks. Even if not common among the people, yet kings and princes probably practised it, following the custom of their heathen contemporaries. Birthday festivals were not considered by the Rabbis as "ḥukkot ha-goyim" (customs of the heathen; see Maimonides, Yad ha-Ḥazaḳh, 'Akkum we-Ḥuḳotehem, xi. 12), although Lightfoot held a contrary opinion ("Horæ Hebr." on Matt. xiv. 6).Biblical References.
A close study of the Biblical text shows that the Bible is not altogether wanting in references to the subject; for, while it lacks positive accounts, it contains passages from which it may be inferred that the custom of remembering birthday anniversaries was not wholly unknown among the Jews. "The day of our king" (Hosea vii. 5), on which the princes made the king sick with bottles of wine, and the king himself "stretched out his hand with scorners," alludes more probably to a birthday festival than to a solemn occasion, such as the anniversary of his installation, which would have been observed with more decorum (see Josephus, "Ant." xv. 9, § 6).
Birthdays might not have been celebrated by the common people with great solemnity, yet they did not pass wholly unnoticed, and were remembered by congratulations, as in modern times. Jeremiah not only cursed the day of his birth, but wished that it should not be blessed (Jer. xx. 14), as though such had been the custom.
It is said of Job, "and he cursed his day" (Job iii. 1). The emphatic and determining expression "his day" implies the idea that he, like everybody else, had a certain day of the year singled out for a certain purpose, which we learn further was the anniversary of his birth.Weaning on Second Birthday.
The second or third birthday of a child whose coming into the world was very much desired by his parents was usually made the occasion of a feast, because the child was then weaned, and had consequently passed the dangerous and uncertain stage of infancy. Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned (Gen. xxi. 8). This occurred, according to Rashi, at the expiration of twenty-four months. Bishop Ely ("Holy Bible Com." l.c. on the passage) says: "By comparing I Sam. it would seem that this was very probably a religious feast." Hannah postponed the yearly family feast at Shiloh until she had weaned Samuel, in order to celebrate his birthday at the same time (I Sam. i. 23, 24). According to Rashi and Midr. R. Samuel, l.c., this also occurred at the end of twenty-four months. Yet from II Chron. xxxi. 16 it may be inferred that Samuel was weaned at the end of his third year; for only from that age were children admitted to the service of the Temple.In Post-Biblical Times.
Two instances of birthday celebrations are mentioned in post-Biblical literature, from which it may be assumed that this was customary in the Herodian family. They used to celebrate birthdays with great pomp, and in the same manner as the Egyptian kings had done more than 2,000 years earlier (Gen. xl. 20), by extensive public entertainments, which were made the occasions of granting favors to friends and pardons to those in disgrace. Agrippa I. solemnized his birthday anniversary by entertaining his subjects with a festival, and decreed the recall of his banished general Silas, which recall, by the way, the latter stubbornly declined (Josephus, "Ant." xix. 7, § 1). Herod the Tetrarch celebrated his birthday with a great feast, at which the daughter of Herodias danced before the guests, the king promising "to give her whatsoever she would ask" (Matt. xiv. 6).The Bar Miẓwah.
The Jewish people in general may have had reasons to avoid feasting on birthdays in the times of the Tannaim and Amoraim: first, because they had been at one time grievously offended on such festivals (according to II Macc. vi. 7, the Jews were forced, in the time of Antiochus, to eat of the sacrifices which were offered "in the day of the king's birth every month"); secondly, because no "Talmid ḥakam" would attend as a guest at such a feast, since the Rabbis condemn the Talmid ḥakam who partakes of a meal or feast which is not a "se'udat miẓwah" (commendable meal). And to the son of him who frequented feasts were applied opprobrious epithets, such as "son of an oven-heater," "son of a market-dancer," etc. Since the fifteenth century (Löw, "Lebensalter," p. 210) the thirteenth birthday of a boy has been made the occasion of a family feast because it coincides with his religious majority (Bar Miẓwah).Special Birthdays of Scholars.
In modern times the widely spread custom of celebrating some particular birthday of a great man by a banquet or by some literary production has enriched Jewish literature with many gems of Hebrew learningand poetry. Jewish scholars of great renown have become the recipients of marks of deference and homage on the part of their friends and admirers on their seventieth or eightieth or ninetieth birthday by the publication of a jubilee-book, to which scholars from far and near have contributed some of their best work. Of these publications are: (1) "Jubelschrift zum Neunzigsten Geburtstag des Dr. L. Zunz," Berlin, 1884, produced on the occasion of Dr. Zunz's ninetieth birthday; (2) "Jubelschrift zum Siebenzigsten Geburtstag des Prof. Dr. H. Graetz," Breslau, 1887, in celebration of Graetz's seventieth anniversary; (3) "Festschrift zum Achtzigsten Geburtstag des Dr. Moritz Steinschneider," Leipsic, 1890, on the eightieth birthday of Dr. Steinschneider; and (4) "Shay la-Moreh" (A Present to the Teacher), Berlin, 1890, dedicated to Dr. Israel Hildesheimer by his friends and students on his seventieth birthday.
Some have confined themselves to the sending of a letter of homage or a poem. Smolenskin remembered Dr. Zunz on his ninetieth birthday with a letter of congratulation, "Miktab Shalom" ("Ha-Shaḥar," xii. 327). H. S. Slonimski was greeted on his seventieth birthday by a letter of homage, "Iggeret Ḥen," signed by twenty-eight of his friends, all poets and "maskilim" ("Ha-Ẓefirah," vii.). S. Scherschewski wrote a magnificent poem on the same occasion (ib.). There is a poem by A. Gottlober dedicated to the famous ḥazan and musical composer, Solomon Sulzer, on his seventieth birthday ("Ḳol Shire Mahallal," vii. 29). Gottlober also wrote six poems on several birthdays of his own (ib. pp. 31-40). There are several birthday poems in the "Shire Sefat Ḳodesh," by A. Lebensohn ha-Kohen, most of them dedicated to his son Michael Joseph (ib. i. 220; ii. 162, 163-184).
The birthday anniversaries of heathen kings, , are considered by the rabbis of the Talmud as legal heathen holidays, which count among those holidays on the three days preceding which Jews are by Talmudic law required to abstain from concluding any business with a heathen (Mishnah 'Ab. Zarah i. 3).
About the meaning of of the Mishnah, which seems to correspond with ἡμέρα γενεσεώς (LXX., Gen. xl. 20), some doubts have been raised because, by the side of ("birthday of the king") mention is also made of ("the day of birth and the day of death"). In the Babylonian Talmud ('Ab. Zarah 10a) the decision is reached in favor of as meaning "the day of coronation." It is accepted by Maimonides (see Commentary to the Mishnah, and Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, 'Akkum we-Ḥukotehem, ix. 5). The glossary "Kesef Mishneh," ad loc., thinks that Maimonides may have read ("assembly") for . Rasḥi explains as equivalent to "the birthday of the king"; while the Talmud Yerushalmi ('Ab. Zarah i. 39) explains as "birthday." This agrees with the use made of the word in many instances (Gen. R. lxxxviii.; Ex. R. xv.; Yer. R. H. iii. 8; Yalḳ., Job. 584; Compare Rashi, Gen. xl. 20). Graetz (in "M. G. Y." 230) is of the opinion that means the day of death of the king.
All these difficulties and differences may be obviated if be explained as indicating Christian festivals of the early Church. By may be understood the Nativity, or Christmas, and by Easter, or the Resurrection. Cave (in "Primitive Christianity," part 1, vii. 194, cited in McClintock and Strong's "Cyclopedia," s.v. "Christmas ") traces the observance of Christmas to the second century, about the time of the emperor Commodus. According to David Ganz ("Ẓemaḥ David," i., year 3881), Commodus reigned 183-185, at the time of Rabbi Meïr of the Mishnah, who counted those days as legal holidays.